Saturday, July 02, 2011

Happiness and GDP

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, has written a couple pieces for The Atlantic somewhat related to a couple of my recent posts on GDP (I linked to one previously).

Townsend looks at the international movement of politicians to move away from GDP as the primary measure of a nation's wealth or well-being:

Unfortunately what was once a tool has become an end in itself. Politicians and economists are addicted to GDP. Is it growing? By how much? How does it compare to other nations'? Of course, America's is always the biggest.

Until recently, the fact that Kuznets himself warned that GDP shouldn't be used to judge a nation's well-being hasn't had much impact.

Now, at last, the wind has shifted. Around the world, people have begun to realize that not only is a single-minded focus on wealth creation unsustainable economically, but it doesn't lead to a fulfilling life. The idea that policymakers should at least consider other measures of progress and prosperity is, increasingly, a mainstream position.

My own opinion of what is driving this trend is the West's slower growth. Politicians aren't able to generate the 5% RGDP growth that they are promising they can in their campaigns and so they have to turn around say "Well, we're still better off in other ways than real income..."

Townsend's second piece examines what the Founding Fathers meant in the phrase "...life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." She has an interesting 1968 Ronald Reagan quote (bold mine):

I believe it's inherent in the concept that created our country--and in the Judeo-Christian religion--that man is for individual fulfillment; for our religion is based on the idea not of any mass movement but of individual salvation. Each man must find his own salvation; I would think that our national purpose in this country--and we have lost sight of it too much in the last three decades--is to be free--to the limit possible with law and order, every man to be what God intended him to be.

This lines up with some of the work by Christian economists I've looked at here recently. The idea that individual liberty is part of the created order so that we can explore all of our God-given talents to our utmost, which will in turn benefit society. Townsend bemoans the exaltation of the individual much as M. Douglas Meeks does:

Today, economics, with its misapprehension that human beings are cost/benefit calculating machines, has come to dominate our politics and our lives. We're left with an unnatural obsession with individualism, a single-minded focus on wealth over work, and an anti-government animus. We're obsessed by supply and demand, driven by marketing and advertising to buck up and demand more to meet the burgeoning supply. The result has been devastating. Millions have been harmed.
I agree with the obsession with individualism and single-minded focus on wealth over work (an important distinction). But "...Millions have been harmed" is too ambiguous to follow. Townsend quotes ancient Greeks, portending we have forgotten their lessons. But, as Meeks points out, the Greek philosophers had very un-biblical views of work, looking down on it as an evil to be avoided, which leads to some unfavorable ways to organize our society. I thought this tidbit interesting:

(Thomas) Jefferson declared that the pursuit of happiness was an inalienable right, along with life and liberty. The story goes that Jefferson, on the advice of Benjamin Franklin, substituted the phrase "pursuit of happiness" for the word "property," which was favored by George Mason. Franklin thought that "property" was too narrow a notion.
I wonder how much more libertarian our society would be if "property" were the cornerstone of pursuit rather than "happiness." Townsend seems to argue that participation in civil society was what the founders meant. To have your voice heard in government.

Townsend then abruptly shifts to calling for a new New Deal public works program to put people to work "rebuilding" our infrastructure. Townsend then closes with more ambiguity:

A few weeks ago, I was at a political event in Washington. Over 12,000 people from all over the country had come to participate. When I asked the woman who was standing next to me what made her happy, she described the purchase of a lovely piece of pottery. She never thought of saying, "Standing here, working for my country, making my mark on American policy." Yet she had devoted hundreds of hours to doing just that. She simply did not see what she was doing. She didn't have a name for it....Only thoughtful discussions of the true meaning of happiness and prosperity will awaken people to what it is that really fulfills them and will give them the words to describe it.
So, I think her overall point here is that GDP growth and property ownership (or wealth) is not happiness. Happiness is living in community and having a government that represents your interests.

I find myself thinking of pastors and conservative Christians active in politics that are critical of President Obama's economic policies or pining for a mythical "better time." However, it's during economic downturns that evangelical churches boom. An American society that puts work and wealth second, and spiritual things first would be an American economy that perhaps grows more slowly than today (and is perfectly okay with that).

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